The sun is just setting outside Doheny and Nesbitt’s pub and a colony of artists, flocked over from the Royal Hibernian Academy, have taken up residency outside.

Tourists are mingling and passing through, happy to be in Dublin before the weather turns and autumn settles in.

This is Baggot Street, a road out of the capital since the Medieval period. 

The spine of Dublin’s former Bohemian quarter, characterised by its red-brick Georgian architecture where Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan strode by, avoiding each other, is where the Irish premiere of Waiting for Godot was performed in a tiny basement theatre.

It also hosts part of the Department of Finance, whose chessboard exterior of limestone and glass was built in conversation with the 17th Century Huguenot Cemetery it overlooks. 

There is nothing to suggest on this evening, in this quarter, that the night holds much that is dangerous or threatening. 

But some of the occupants and business owners along Baggot Street and Merrion Row see it differently. 

They see lanes and planters scattered with needles and the paraphernalia of drug use, they experience increasing incidents of aggression and theft, and every day the absence of gardaí is keenly felt. 

Panic buttons

A few weeks ago, The Currency was sent video footage of a spate of robberies in the two Spar shops along this stretch, one on Merrion Row and one on Lower Baggot Street. 

Both are under the control of businessman Thomas Ennis, who runs a city-centre retail group including Spar and Maxol stores.

One video shows two hooded men with covered faces, one holding a knife and moving quickly into the shop. The armed man leaps to the counter to force the person behind the till to open the register so they can sweep the cash out of it. 

The fact that one of his stores backs onto the Department of Finance is neither a deterrent nor a protection for Ennis’s business.

Multiple other videos show aggression towards staff as they try to prevent people shoplifting high-value items, mostly alcohol, but also coffee and toiletries. 

“Anything”, Ennis says, “that they can sell for drugs.”

Shoplifting is a daily occurrence, a nuisance, and one which has forced him to reevaluate the stock he carries, reduce opening hours and restrict off-licence hours. 

But more concerning to Ennis than a cull of his inventory is the threat of violence. Between those two Spar stores, Ennis reckons there is one serious robbery in his shops every week and his staff now wear panic buttons as part of their uniform. 

“It’s not a deterrent. It’s more for our staff to feel safer knowing that if they press it the guards will arrive quicker,” Ennis says.

“Imagine being a sales assistant in a store and your uniform used to be just your name badge but now you have to put on a panic button. That’s where we’re at.”

“Never”, he says, “has it been as bad as it is now. If anything, it’s gotten worse.”

In all the times Ennis has called the gardaí following a robbery, he says it has never been followed up on and he’s never been called on to give evidence in criminal proceedings. 

From what he has seen, the level of drug use and the type of drugs being used in Dublin has completely changed the game. 

He noticed it first in April 2020, when one incident in particular heralded a new era for drugs in the city. Two men came into his shop and tried to steal a case of beer. When a garda arrived at the scene on a bicycle, one of the men tried to steal more beer and when he was stopped he lashed out. 

“They were so completely out of it that they were swinging punches at gardaí,” Ennis said. 

“It took five guards to arrest him. This was the first time I saw people who were using crack cocaine. They were out of their minds. The guard said he probably had no idea what he was doing.”

Baggot Street. Photo: Bryan Meade

Ennis has been vocal before about the level of violence and crime that is happening around the Merrion quarter and up around St Stephen’s Green for years. He did an interview with Ian in 2021 when Covid-19 restrictions had cleared the city of people and he saw a rise of street attacks and intimidation. 

“There seems to be a lack of respect for law, for society, and for their fellow people,” he said then. “There is no presence of guards around. I have a great relationship with the guards, but they are under a lot of pressure.” 

“Something is going to happen,” he said then.

It was an unfortunate prediction of what was to come in the summer of 2023, when a spate of high-profile attacks on American, British, and Irish tourists in the city centre resulted in a national conversation and challenges to Justice Minister Helen McEntee’s efficacy at the job.

In response an extra €10 million in overtime has been allocated to Gardaí in Dublin, as part of a “high-impact” and “visibility” strategy. 

“There’s no consequences for them, there’s no garda presence, you won’t see a guard going by on a Friday or Saturday night.”

Kevin Barden

The finance will provide an extra 240,000 Garda hours in the city by year-end and 20 per cent of it is dedicated to the increased deployment of the Garda’s riot unit in the city centre on a daily basis.  The move, which earned headlines for its inclusion of armed guards, was seen as PR political manoeuvring by some who question why the money is being spent when the rates of assaults are actually dropping. 

There were 2,353 assaults in public places in the Dublin region this year, a slight reduction on the 2,429 crimes reported in the first seven months of last year and a bigger decrease on the 2,535 assaults recorded in the first seven months of 2019, before the Covid pandemic, according to figures from the Central Statistics Office. 

But business owners say these figures are not reflective of reality, as an ennui has set in about the power of the gardaí to do anything has set in and so incidents go unreported. 

Private police

Speaking to business owners along Merrion Row and Baggot Street, not all of whom have experienced problems, the abiding feeling is both abject frustration with the gardaí and total sympathy for them. 

There is a consensus that the gardaí are relatively powerless to mend the problems they face with the tools they have. 

James Cirillo, whose family owns the well-known pizza restaurants Cirillo’s on Baggot Street and nearby Dawson Street, has now clubbed together with eight other businesses to hire private security to patrol Dawson Street through business hours. 

It was a last-resort measure after months of frustration.

“The guards have no presence here at all, and when they do come they have no back-up,” Cirillo said. 

He describes a scene a few weeks ago, where two men were openly smoking crack cocaine outside his Dawson Street restaurant all day. 

“The guards showed up a couple of hours later. When they came there was an argument between them and the guys with the drugs, it was insane. They have no back-up at all, it’s not the guards’ fault. They have no power,” he said. 

Cirillo is audibly frustrated and tired by the situation; he says his customers are “constantly plagued” by people who are “aggressive” coming up to them if they’re eating outside the restaurant. 

He’s had people coming in “scoping out” the restaurant when it’s closed and when staff are unloading deliveries, and he’s been forced to roster his staff in a way to try and maximise protection for them.

Breaking and entering is something reported by other owners as well. In recent days, Bang, the restaurant and wine bar on Baggot Street owned by businessman Joe Barrett, was broken into. The side door was smashed overnight and bottles of wine were stolen. 

Kevin Barden, whose family owns O’Donoghues pub, now keeps security on the door three nights a week. 

“Things need to go wrong before guards arrive and there really is a new breed of people begging around the area, they are aggressive and they don’t move on, they don’t listen to you as much as they used to before,” Barden said.

“There’s no consequences for them, there’s no garda presence, you won’t see a guard going by on a Friday or Saturday night,”

“It feels like we are on our own here.”

Over the road in Foley’s Pub, the staff room has been broken into twice in the past six months, with wallets, bags, and coats stolen. 

CCTV was handed over to the Gardaí, but the pub’s financial controller Ciara Gunning said there was never any follow-up. 

“You report it, they come in and you never hear anything,” she says.

“People who use drugs, there is often a history of trauma and neglect in their past.”

Andy O’Hara

After two staff were mugged in recent weeks near the pub when they were walking home, Foley’s now only rosters staff who can drive to work and park nearby on late shifts because they no longer feel safe walking to get a bus at 11.30pm at night.

Such is the perception of danger that ever since Covid restrictions, Gunning hasn’t felt safe walking to her car late at night when it’s parked a few hundred metres away on Ely Place. 

“We’ve had a lot of trouble with people coming in. Our toilets are downstairs and definitely we have an issue with drug users, there’s syringes left there. Staff members have gone down and seen people using drugs there,” Gunning said.

“It’s like we are in a blank spot. There is no garda presence around here at all. Considering the government buildings are down the corner, there is never one on Merrion Row ever.”

Businesses that close earlier in the day, like food outlets Chopped and KC Peaches, don’t experience similar problems. Brian Lee, the owner of the Chopped chain, said his Merrion Row location was probably his “calmest” and there was no issues with shoplifting or threats to staff.

“Appalling neglect”

The common thread that many business owners connect their problems to is drugs. 

Walk around St Stephen’s Green, it’s easy to spot bushes that are being used by people as dens for drug use. Trodden pathways lead into leafy greens behind which are bottles and syringes. 

St Stephen’s Green in Dublin 2. Photo: Bryan Meade

One formerly famous lane, once home to The Unicorn and the Lady Gaga-favoured Piano bar, is a concentrated example of the issue. 

The buildings are empty now, and the yard in front of them is a cavity for drug use. Walking down it one afternoon in August, there is human poo, needles, cans and sleeping bags scattered asunder.

It’s a plague for the businesses operating around it, whose customers see it being used as a toilet throughout the day. The end of the lane is privately owned by Aviva Insurance, where there was an open space once used for outdoor dining. It was recently boarded up to try and contain the problem but it continues nonetheless. 

In response to a query from The Currency, a spokesperson for Aviva said: “Aviva Life & Pensions owns four properties on Merrion Row which are part of its Irish Commercial Property Fund, together with a small part of the outdoor space at the end of the lane (Merrion Court). 

“We are aware that some homeless people were sleeping rough on this section a couple of weeks ago.  They have now moved on and we had our section cleaned up and hoarded off.

“A further industrial clean is scheduled for the coming days to tidy up the space after the hoarding was installed.  We take matters like this very seriously and, where any issue arises, we address them very promptly.”

Drugs in the city

One of the risks of highlighting this kind of petty crime and the frustrations of business owners is contributing to an “us and them” mentality, and that is an unhelpful place to go, says Daithí Doolan, a Dublin City councillor and member of the South Inner City Local Drugs Taskforce. 

Speaking to The Currency, Doolan said most people who use drugs are not violent, and one of the arguments for supervised injecting facilities is to reduce the scourge of needles and bodily fluids that can be left around the streets when people don’t have safe places to go

Doolan has been working on the “drugs issue” for close to 26 years and believes Dublin “is no different to any other town or city on a weekend night. The problems here are not unique.”

But what is “appalling is the neglect from the government in funding addiction services, and now businesses, addicts and the wider community are paying the cost of this,” he said, adding: “We are in a very poor position trying to provide services that have become more complex, as the drug use in Dublin has become more complex.”

Doolan believes the funding that is given to addiction services is done so from an ivory tower, without any understanding of the problems or consultation with people who are working at ground level.

“The government needs to realise we can’t do this with one hand tied behind our back and an ever-diminishing budget. Drugs have moved so far down the political agenda here that it’s barely off the ground,” he said.

Andy O’Hara, a coordinator at UISCE Advocacy for People who use Drugs, echoed this and said that there needs to be greater collaboration with the community over what supports and assistance actually work. 

“People who use drugs, there is often a history of trauma and neglect in their past. We need to look past the drugs and see the person that is there,” O’Hara said. 

“A lot of times, people are using drugs to cope with their trauma, and this isn’t something we can or should police ourselves out of. There isn’t a quick fix to this.”

O’Hara, who has presented to the Citizen’s Assembly on Drug Use said policies, said policy needs to be developed in conjunction with drug users and people who have experience using drugs.

“The reality is most drug users are peaceful, and we need to make sure we don’t sensationalise the issue. We need to look at the reasons and causes for people using drugs, and develop responses to that rather than knee-jerk responses to high-profile incidents.”

Further reading

Tackling illegal drug supply is just half of the equation

The real O’Connell Street: At least it’s not Grafton Street or the Champs-Élysées